At the beginning of August, a White House transition from a fitful infancy to a gentler adolescence seemed nigh. With retired Marine Gen. John Kelly rising to be President Donald Trump’s gatekeeping chief of staff, Secretary of Defense James Mattis overseeing future planning for the War in Afghanistan, and National Security Adviser Lt Gen. H.R. McMaster conducting an extended purge of the National Security Council, the generals appeared to making good on a promise Mattis and Kelly reportedly made during the early weeks of the Trump administration: to “keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging” from the Oval Office.
Today is Aug. 9, and that plan has gone to shit.
On Aug. 7, the Washington Post revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency believes the North Korean military has finally completed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto the Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile that Pyongyang first successfully tested in May. According to the Post, the DPRK has up to 60 operational nuclear weapons, ready for the country’s insane supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, to make good on his mad threats with the push of a button.
After reports of Trump “trying to impress his four-star handler” Kelly, one might expect a little bit of Marine discipline in the commander-in-chief’s response. Nope.
During what was supposed to be a statement on America’s opioid crisis, Trump declared that Pyongyang “best not make any more threats” against the U.S., lest North Korea “be met with fire and fury unlike the world has ever seen.” The next morning, he falsely boasted on his medium — Twitter — that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
…Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
Nobody saw Trump’s bluster coming — especially not the White House. The threat was reportedly “improvised,” catching not just Kelly and McMaster but the entire White House political apparatus off guard. Even though White House advisers like Steve Bannon assumed that Trump would face questions regarding the DIA’s report during his vacation golf getaway in Bedminster, New Jersey, the president “had not mentioned his comment during a conference call beforehand that focused on North Korea,” according to the New York Times.
A U.S. territory, a strategic linchpin of U.S. Pacific Command, and home to more than 160,000 innocent American citizens by birth, Guam is well within the strike range of several intermediate-range missiles in North Korea’s arsenal. Experts suggest that Pyongyang likely doesn’t have enough flight data to pull off a successful first strike on the island — which might give the Pentagon all the time it needs to flatten everything north of the 38th parallel.
Trump’s ad-lib left the generals and their counterparts across the executive branch scrambling. While Mattis warned Pyongyang that North Korea faced the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people” should it remain on its belligerent course, he emphasized that the Department of State “is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means” in an attempt to defuse his commander-in-chief’s inflammatory rhetoric.
Still, Trump’s point-blank Bedminster threat — a surprise, but not unexpected given the president’s Article 5 blunder at a NATO summit in late May — may signal a broader rift with his cadre of general babysitters, a rift which intensified with the heated shouting match with Mattis, McMaster and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford following a tense Oval Office session on Afghanistan.
As the illusion of order and discipline fades away, the chaos seeps back into the West Wing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has provided support for the Marine troika, emphatically reassuring nervous regional allies on Aug. 9 that there existed “no imminent threat of war.” But the White House just shrugged, with administration officials apparently unconcerned by the gravity of the evolving crisis. “We are not just a superpower,” Sebastian Gorka, a Trump national security adviser and ally of Bannon in his clashes with the Mattis/Kelly/McMaster troika, said on Fox News following Trump’s comments on August 8. “We were a superpower. We are now a hyper-power.”
As for Kelly, the new chief of staff is having a moment of reflection amid the chaos in Washington. According to the Washington Examiner, the Marine general’s efforts to impose order and discipline upon the West Wing stopped with his attempt to take control of the Trump’s Twitter account — the primary instrument of the president’s quixotic policy pronouncements that have sent the White House and Pentagon scrambling in recent weeks. The Examiner reports that Trump “was pissed when he read Kelly wanted to control his Twitter feed”; based on Aug. 9’s morning salvo, nobody’s getting that Twitter account away from POTUS any time soon.
Kelly appears to be taking his rough start in stride. “Remember, telling the unvarnished truth to power doesn’t mean you always get your way,” he told Fox News in an interview earlier this week. “The principal ultimately decides, and it is our way that, so long as that decision is legal, moral and ethical, one salutes and executes. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t.”
But events of the last few days suggest that the delicate months-long dance of Pentagon brass around Trump may have been for nothing.
In a now-infamous article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. State Department’s charge d’affaires in Moscow, George F. Kennan, laid out a strategy for America’s future diplomatic engagement with the Soviets built on “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” — a strategy of containment the U.S. also embraced regarding North Korea: The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations both pursued containment after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006.
Mattis and McMaster (and, to some extent, the“apolitical” Kelly) are learning a hard truth: Containment may work on the USSR and possibly North Korea, but not on their commander-in-chief. Not only does Trump have “unchecked authority” over the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but he has proven to be a force of nature, immutable, uncontrollable, and uncontainable: just like the nuclear reaction that threatens to engulf the planet.